• Published 21st May 2012
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Mantles - Ponky



Studying in Canterlot, Apple Bloom dons a mask of her youth to counter the city's rising crime.

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5 - His Own Drum

CHAPTER FIVE
HIS OWN DRUM

Sometimes Apple Bloom wished she was a unicorn. Never in her life did she want for wings—just the thought of flying made her dizzy—but having a magical horn would be universally helpful, especially when trying to unlock a door.

She had been struggling outside her apartment for nearly five minutes, clamping her key between her teeth, trying to slide it into the handle’s tiny lock. To complicate things further, she was shivering from cold and emotion, having sat outside the Canterlot Gardens until the Moon was directly over her head. Now the night was dark, frigid, and opposed to her success.

Being the kind, selfless pony that she was, the yellow mare didn’t want to knock and wake her roommates. She supposed that all three of them were fast asleep by that time of night, which made the door’s sudden opening even more alarming.

“Apple Bloom! You’re home!” Sweetie whispered from just inside, ushering in the startled pony on her doorstep. “Gosh, how long have you been out there? I’ve been waiting for you all night. Did you knock? I heard something scratching against the knob and thought maybe it was a lost bird or… hey, are you all right?”

Apple Bloom’s collapse on the decorative rug in the middle of the living room was answer enough for Sweetie Belle. She squeaked with concern, shut the door, and used her magic to lift her frozen friend onto the purple couch.

“Oh, Apple Bloom, where have you been?” she asked, magicking a blanket from a basket in their room and wrapping it tightly around the poor pony.

“I went t-t-to Harper’s place,” she chattered, squeezing her eyes shut as the blanket pulled the dew from her coat.

Sweetie’s eye twitched. “Oh. And you’ve, uh… you’ve been there all night?”

She shook her head more times than she planned to, revved by a flurry of chills. “I left before sunset. Went over to the Canterlot Gardens, sorta accident’ly. They were locked up, but I stayed there for a while.”

“Doing what?”

“Cryin’.”

Sweetie Belle made an exasperated sound. “What for, darling?”

Because Twilight’s turned evil and Pinkie Pie’s dead and Harper just told me he loves me and instead of just handling it like a big mare I ran off and might have just ruined our friendship forever.

“Fer Canterlot. It’s just so sad, seein’ it in a state like this.”

Affectionate hooves wrapped around Apple Bloom from the side. “I can’t say I didn’t have my fair share of those nights when I first moved here. I’m so sorry, Apple Bloom. I should have never let you come.”

“Don’t think that, Sweetie. I’m glad I’m here with you,” Apple Bloom promised, enjoying her friend’s warmth. “Life’s just harder than I think it ought to be, that’s all.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” The white unicorn laughed, covering her mouth with a hoof when she remembered her sleeping roommates. Both of the former Cutie Mark Crusaders giggled at the slip.

“How d’ya like them?” Apple Bloom asked, jerking her head toward their bedroom.

Sweetie Belle’s eyes flashed. “Blitz is hilarious! She has such a good heart. Actually…” Her smile curled into a sheepish one. “…she kind of reminds me of Ditzy.”

“Me, too!” Apple Bloom agreed. The chill of night was nearly forgotten in the warmth of her friend’s blanket and company.

“How is she?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“Who, Ditzy Doo?” At Sweetie’s nod, Apple Bloom let out a small sigh. “Not good, I’m afraid. Worse than she was when you visited at Hearth’s Warmin’.”

“How much longer do they think she has?” Sweetie asked in a sort of whimper.

Apple Bloom shook her head. “They don’t know. Dinky’s takin’ it real well, though. She’s the new mailmare!”

Sweetie gasped. “Oh, how wonderful! Following in her mother’s hoofsteps. What a dear.”

The light of the Moon pushed through a smoky cloud, reminding the mares of the very late hour. With her second day of college classes fast approaching, Apple Bloom slid off the couch and started towards her room with Sweetie.

If Sweetie seemed slightly troubled, Apple Bloom attributed it to Ditzy Doo’s condition, but she couldn’t see the questions building under Sweetie’s curly mane. What did you do at Harper’s? the unicorn wanted to ask. Did he say anything about me? Did you say anything about me?

She decided to hold in her nags, imagining a friendly conversation between the two Freshponies to ease her mind. Apple Bloom had never liked to flirt, especially not with stallions as handsome and talented and wonderful as Harper Heartstrings. They were only friends, Sweetie told herself. Only friends.

Apple Bloom was telling herself the same thing as she flopped onto her mattress.

(/\/\)

The first week of school went by quickly for everypony. It always did.

True to her word, Apple Bloom’s first tardy was her last. She made it a point to arrive to each class several minutes early, especially Dr. Cossitee’s on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She continued, voluntarily, to sit in the front of the class: she liked to watch her kind professor’s multi-colored eyes light up when he lectured from memory on his favorite artists and their contributions to various styles and practices. All of her courses were interesting and enjoyable, but History became a quick favorite.

Sweetie Belle's classes were longer, frequenter, and far more demanding than Apple Bloom's. The only times they saw each other were in the early mornings and late evenings at home. Even then, Sweetie had several nighttime commitments to attend throughout the week. Though there were only about a thousand students at the School, the size of the campus and separation of Major-specific buildings kept Apple Bloom from bumping into her musical friend… or musical friends, she supposed, if Harper still thought of her as such.

She hadn’t seen or spoken to Harper since Monday night. She was too embarrassed by her flee to form a descent apology or build up the courage to face him. Luckily her schoolwork kept her mind occupied, but every spare moment that snuck up on her conscience smeared Harper’s words along the inside of her skull.

I love you, Apple Bloom.

Had he meant it? Was he just playing a joke on her? No, his eyes had been too clear for that. He called her the mare of his dreams. How long had he felt that way? Why had she never seen it before?

She tried to go through every one of their experiences together since becoming friends at her cute-ceñera, but never once did her memory reveal a single hint at his affection. He had always been affable, helpful, and caring, but never in their years of friendship had he even suggested a desire for more.

But Apple Bloom was most disturbed—or perhaps simply fascinated—by the inklings of reciprocation nudging at her heart. Harper was two years younger than her… but that didn’t really matter. Besides, he was vastly more mature than other stallions his age. He was smart and clever and incredibly talented… not to mention cute as they come. Those dreamy, lake-like eyes had always given Apple Bloom a tingle in her stomach… had that been love all along?

Wisely, she kept her musings to herself. Something felt wrong about sharing Harper’s strange confession with anypony, especially someone as gossipy as Sweetie Belle (another unfortunate trait the unicorn shared with her sister). But Apple Bloom knew that, sooner or later, she’d have to cowpony up and visit him again. Whatever the outcome, she had to apologize for her stupid behavior and try to secure at least a comfortable relationship with him.

That Saturday morning, three of the four residents of 4 Quarterhorse Lane, room 8, sat around their glass kitchen table waiting for Sweetie Belle to finish her promised breakfast of cupcakes. Apple Bloom listened to Blitz and Lilac recount their favorite moments of their semester’s first week while Sweetie’s heavenly voice drifted softly from the kitchen.

“…a bit of salt, just a pinch...” she sang.

Apple Bloom shuddered.

“Okay! I’m done!” Sweetie called as a wave of mouth-watering aromas brushed under the hungry mares’ noses. She levitated a tray of six steaming cupcakes to the center of the table, joining her friends for the most important meal of the day.

“Dig in, everypony!” she encouraged, releasing her magical hold on the goods. Blitz snatched one onto her plate in the blink of an eye and stuck her snout into its cloud of rising steam.

“Mmmm…” she hummed, letting her tongue hang from the side of her mouth. “Smells so good!”

Lilac carefully lifted a cupcake to her lips and took a small, dainty bite. After a moment of thoughtful chewing, the corners of her mouth twitched upward. “I must admit,” she began in her proper dialect, “I was less than enthusiastic at the idea of consuming such a menial dessert in place of a balanced breakfast. But this…” Her ghost of a smile returned full-fledged. “This is delicious, Sweetie Belle.”

“Yeah!” Blitz agreed with half a cupcake in her mouth. “Never had cupcakes for breakfast before. Maybe next time you can make muffins!”

Sweetie and Apple Bloom snorted, trapping fits of laughter in the back of their throats. Lilac raised an eyebrow, but Blitz paid them no mind, shoving the remaining half of her first cupcake into her other cheek and picking a second from the batch.

“I’m so glad you like them!” Sweetie managed to reply, her upper lip quivering under the pressure of suppressed snickering.

Not long into the meal, Lilac addressed Apple Bloom with a playfully sinister smile.

“I forgot to ask all week, dear, but how was your visit to that stallion you were so excited to see?”

Sweetie rubbed under her eye as Apple Bloom’s mind groped for an appropriate answer.

“It was… nice,” she said, keeping her eyes on the crumbs around her plate.

“He was sure cute, Apple Bloom,” Blitz remembered with a wink. “When he found out I was one of your roommates, he nearly dropped from the lunch table!” She laughed, pattering her forehooves against the glass.

“What was his name, again?” Lilac asked.

“Harper,” Sweetie answered in a voice lower than her own. “Harper Heartstrings.”

Blitz stopped laughing and gave her a bewildered look. “You know him, too? Gosh, why aren’t I friends with any cute unicorns?” Sweetie Belle’s eyelids dropped, reminding Blitz to add, “Stallions. Cute unicorn stallions.”

“Sweetie and I grew up with Harper,” Apple Bloom explained.

“In Ponyville?” Lilac asked in surprise. “My goodness, they certainly seem to accept several students from such a supposedly shunned little city.”

“You said sssss a lot!” Blitz giggled.

“Ponyville’s a special place,” Apple Bloom mumbled, rolling the last of her cupcake back and forth between her hooves.

“Hey!” Blitz exclaimed, hovering above the table on her light blue wings. “You should invite him to come over here so we can all be friends with Harper Heartstrings!”

Sweetie’s eyes lingered on Lilac’s sheen, burgundy coat and gracefully slanted eyes for a moment before shaking her head. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea. He’s a little… shy, when it comes to meeting new ponies and all.”

Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. “No, he’s n—”

Sweetie kicked her beneath the table, forgetting it was made of see-through glass. Neither of the other ponies noticed anyway.

“But,” the singer continued, placing a hoof on her chin, “I suppose that Apple Bloom and I could go to his apartment this morning and ask if he’d like to meet you two.”

“Oh, would you please?” Blitz begged. Lilac contributed her own approving nod.

“I don’t think I—”

“Come on, Apple Bloom, let’s go right now! Don’t want to keep these poor mares waiting.” Sweetie used her magic to yank Apple Bloom from the table by her tail, dragging her toward the front door while she called over her shoulder, “Would you two be kind enough to clear the table and wash off the dishes? Thanks a bunches!”

“Thanks a bunches?” Apple Bloom repeated under her breath, quite aware of Sweetie’s unusually panicked state. As soon as the apartment door was closed and locked behind them, she turned to her friend with a questioning glare.

“What in tarnation’re you up to?” she asked, grateful to see the pale green glow of Sweetie’s magic dissipate from around her tail.

Sweetie wasted no time with lies. “I want to go see Harper and find out what’s going on,” she whispered harshly, lifting her chin before descending the zigzagging staircase to Quarterhorse Lane. Apple Bloom followed, perplexed.

“What d’ya mean, what’s goin’ on? Why’re ya bringin’ me?”

“I mean, I want to know why you’ve been acting so weird since you came home that night!” she snapped without turning around. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you staring off at nothing half the time with that miserable expression on your face. Something happened at Harper’s and I’m going to find out what it was.”

The streets were nearly empty that early on a Saturday. More sunlight than usual poked through the ever-present smog above the city, casting a warmer light onto the quiet scene. Or, almost quiet.

“Nothin’ happened at Harper’s, Sweetie Belle!” Apple Bloom yelled as her hooves hit Quarterhorse Lane. She galloped to her determined friend’s side.

“You’re not as bad as your sister, Bloom, but you’re still a terrible liar!” Sweetie said. “Now, where is his apartment?”

Dreading the inevitable, but feeling this was as good a time as any to see Harper again, Apple Bloom dropped her head. “Bridle Boulevard off o’ Mane Street,” she relayed, and they cantered the rest of the way without words.

The sound of their eight hooves echoed eerily against the tall buildings of Canterlot, pricking Apple Bloom’s lowered ears. Sweetie’s walk was tall and brisk, focused on the task at hand, radiating her flustration. That’s what she called it, anyway, feeling somewhere in between flustered and frustrated, unable to fully commit to one or the other.

Even at their quick trot, it took several minutes to reach Harper’s building, and nearly two more to squeeze up the stairs past a dense congregation of college ponies on their way to work. Apple Bloom didn’t have a job in Canterlot—she had saved up plenty of bits in Ponyville, working on the family farm, marketing their goods in town, and selling her paintings to its generous citizens—and Sweetie Belle was paid for her gigs and concerts.

Sweetie hammered on the center of Harper’s door when Apple Bloom identified it with a flick of her hoof. She stepped back and waited for someone to open it, eyeing the knob with a stern stare. Apple Bloom sat on her haunches, slumped forward dejectedly, trying not to speculate at Harper’s possible reactions to her return.

A lock thunked before the door pulled a few inches inward. Apple Bloom recognized the blue-grey face of Harper’s roommate poking through the space he’d opened just enough to see who knocked.

“Who is it?” he asked tensely.

“My name is Sweetie Belle,” she announced too boldly for Apple Bloom’s liking, “and this is—”

“Apple Bloom!” the pegasus finished, noticing the hunched mare behind her pearly friend. Sweetie Belle looked shocked at the interruption, standing still as the face behind the door disappeared for a moment.

“Harper, it’s Apple Bloom!” they heard him whisper.

“Really?” The other voice startled the eavesdropping mares. It was too nasally and harsh to be Harper’s, yet it answered to the name.

“Yeah! I told you she’d come back eventually!”

“Alone?” croaked the other voice from further into the apartment.

“No, she’s with a super pretty unicorn!”

Sweetie tossed her curly locks.

“Should I let them in?”

The ragged voice was silent for a moment. “No,” it finally said. “No… I’ll come to the door.” The following grunts of struggle and pain were far from comforting.

The mares waited for what felt like ten minutes. Sweetie Belle clamped her jaw; Apple Bloom’s heart was hosting its own Appleoosan Wild West Dance, and the rest of her innards joined in the confounded fun by the time one of Harper’s deep-blue irises came into view.

“What?” he croaked, sounding more like a frog than a pony.

Sweetie Belle shot an accusing glance at Apple Bloom, but the farmpony’s expression of genuine surprise attested to their shared confusion.

“Uh… hi, Harper!” Sweetie greeted, trying to sound innocent. “I hope it’s not too early. Bloom and I wanted to come… vithit… wiiii…”

Her words slurred and trailed off as her jaw unhinged. Harper had pulled the door wide open as she spoke, casting the hallway’s light onto his entire body.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders had done many stupid things, mostly attributed to Scootaloo’s imagination. In the course of their increasingly bizarre attempts to discover their special talents, the trio had fallen from devastating heights, smashed into walls at dangerous speeds, tumbled through countless obstacle courses, and even survived an accident with a mechanical taffy-puller. They’d all received their fair share of scrapes, scratches, and bruises, and had grown accustomed to the sight of banged-up limbs and flanks.

Apple Bloom nearly vomited on the hallway’s carpet. Sweetie Belle fainted on the spot.

Harper was covered from head to tail with a disgusting array of dark, oozing wounds. The bridge of his muzzle was irregularly angled. His left eye was swollen shut, surrounded by a sickly green bulge of fur and flesh. Parts of his mane had been ripped out of their roots, leaving huge, horrendous scabs along his neck. His tail was uneven, his legs wrapped in moist, pink bandages, and the ribcage Apple Bloom had playfully punched was ravaged with merciless hoofmarks.

“Hey, Apple Bloom,” he managed to say, offering the remnants of a smile between his thick, cracked lips. Several of his teeth were missing. “Guess you weren’t the only pony to break a part of me this week, huh?”

She threw up.

(/\/\)

“When did this happen?” Sweetie nearly shrieked, shivering with shock as she eyed Harper’s mangled frame with pin-prick pupils.

“Thursday night,” he answered softly. The damage to his throat made it hard to speak. “If you think I look bad now, you should have seen me when I got home.”

Both of his present roommates—the pegasi game designers—nodded solemnly at his statement. Their eyes had not stopped swiveling from one attractive mare to the other since they returned from fetching one of the dormitory’s janitors to clean up Apple Bloom’s bile. The humiliated earth pony had offered to do the job herself, but Harper would have none of that. Now, with a cup of warm tea between her hooves, she shrunk beneath their awestruck gawking. Sweetie Belle was either oblivious to their stares or privately fueled by them.

“I don’t understand,” the unicorn wailed, pulling a blanket tighter around her shoulders. “They just… attacked you? In the streets? With no motivation?”

“Oh, they had plenty of motivation,” Harper corrected, levitating a cup of tea her way. “Drink that. It’ll calm you down.”

“I doubt it,” Sweetie muttered, but swallowed a mouthful anyway.

Gingerly, Harper took a seat on the couch across from his visitors, wincing as he stretched his forelegs out to his sides. His roommates knelt on either side of the sofa, at last turning their gaze away from the girls to focus on their injured friend. Though they had already heard the story, they made no interruptions.

“Well, first of all, I tried out for the Drum Line,” he began, shooting a smile at Apple Bloom, “thanks to some very good advice.”

His friendliness did nothing to put her at ease.

“That was on Wednesday. The ponies in charge of the process were really impressed with my audition. When it was all over, they asked me to come to callbacks the next day. It was hard not to get excited, seeing how giddy they got with all my talents. They had me sing for them and play the harp, along with all the regular percussion stuff. It was so much fun for everypony in the room. Leaving that night, I felt like life here wouldn’t be so bad after all.”

Apple Bloom noticed his one-eyed, fleeting glance in her direction. It seemed to carve another section out of her stomach, like a dull spoon scraping out the gunk of a pumpkin.

“Next day I went to callbacks. Everypony who made it through the first round of auditions was there in the same room. The judges were really nice and a lot of fun to work with. They had us form a bunch of different groups and improvise on our chosen instruments. I played the snare, of course.” His open eye glanced fondly at his own flank. “While we performed, the judges just trotted around the room, taking notes and whispering to each other and nodding when somepony did something awesome. I got a lot of nods.”

He winked, though unsurprisingly it went unnoticed.

“They really liked me, and they didn’t hide it. Before the end of the day, they had me lead a little section of my own and sing over the top of it. Most of the others auditioning enjoyed themselves, I think. But there was a group of stallions—four big ones with creepy Cutie Marks—who kept giving me the scariest looks.”

He shuddered. His audience followed suit, more from the grating rasp of his voice than the vague imagery.

“What d’ya mean creepy Marks?” Apple Bloom asked. It was the first time she had spoken since arriving, making Harper catch his breath.

He cleared his throat. “It looked like they had added to whatever was naturally there. I mean, one of them had a single basketball, but there was this evil smile drawn over it and a pair of rusty swords crossed behind. Another one had an autumn leaf, but modified to look all torn up and… I don’t know… creepy.”

Apple Bloom dedicated the descriptions to memory as the battered stallion continued his tale.

“The callbacks ended pretty late. The ponies in charge said the final roster would be posted in the HFAC the next day, but that if anypony didn’t show up to the Line’s first rehearsal on Friday night, they’d be kicked out of the group and instantly replaced. No second chances.” His features darkened as he repeated himself: “No second chances.

Chills crept up his listeners’ spines. Apple Bloom’s were by far the worst.

“I practically bounced home that night, one hundred percent confident that I had made the group. Like I said, it was pretty late; the closer I got to my apartment, the fewer ponies there were on the streets. Before long, I was totally alone.” He shook his head. “I noticed their hoofsteps right away. They were coming up from behind me, fast. Before I could even turn around, the four big stallions from tryouts surrounded me and led me into the darkest alleyway on the road. They started to threaten me, warned me not to come to the first practice. The brown one with the leaf Cutie Mark was the biggest and acted like the leader.”

Harper suddenly started to laugh. “I guess I was just high on life or something. Didn’t really think it through. I stood as tall as I could and I told him, ‘I will go to the first practice, and every other practice for the rest of the year, and I’ll be the best drummer Canterlot’s School of Art has ever seen.’

“They didn’t like that answer. So they beat me up.”

He shrugged at the flippant conclusion. Apple Bloom thought she could see his “that’s the way it goes” face behind the breaks and bruises.

“Beat you up?” Sweetie Belle repeated. “Beat you up? Harper, look at you! They didn’t beat you up, they nearly killed you!”

He grunted. “That’s one way to look at it.”

Sweetie tossed the blanket from her body and rose righteously to her hooves. “You cannot treat this like a joke, Harper. This is serious. This is threatening and bullying and unnecessary violence and, dare I say, attempted murder. Those stallions should be arrested!”

“Probably,” Harper droned.

Sweetie gaped. “Are you trying to blow this off?”

“Yes,” he answered with a curt nod.

Apple Bloom’s eyes tilted desperately. “But, Harper… why? Why not go to the guards, or the teachers who liked you so much?”

“I was screaming like a maniac, Apple Bloom,” Harper said. “There are guards all over this city, and none of them did a thing to help me. And the judges? I missed Friday’s rehearsal. They said no second chances.”

Sweetie Belle scoffed. “I’m sure that this qualifies as what they call an extraneous circumstance. They’ll understand, Harper! They’ll help you!”

“You were paying attention, right?” Harper quipped. “You remember who did this to me? I took that leaf-flanked pony’s spot in the Line. He got rid of me, so now he’s in the group. He's willing to do this for a spot in a college drum line. And you two want me to waltz right past him and tattle-tell to the teachers and try to send him to prison? No thanks. Besides…” He held up his bandaged forehooves limply. “I won’t be able to play for the rest of the year, anyway.”

Sweetie’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“I thought’cha used yer horn to play snare,” Apple Bloom said.

“Well… yeah,” Harper said, dropping his hooves into his lap, “but you also do a whole lotta marching and formations and… well, stuff I can’t do right now.”

He sighed—a horrible, scratchy sound that made Sweetie’s teeth grind—while Apple Bloom circled the rim of her teacup with the edge of her hoof.

“Harper, I… I’m so sorry!” she wailed, tossing her head back. “This is all my fault! I shouldn’t o’ told you try out! I’m so sorry!”

She wanted to broaden her apology for every foalish thing she’d done that night, but Sweetie’s presence stopped her from going on. For some reason, she didn’t think Sweetie should know about Harper’s brave confession.

“Oh, please, Apple Bloom.” Harper rolled his eye. “It’s not your fault. I’m glad you encouraged me to audition.”

The farm pony sniffed as her wide eyes focused on Harper’s sincere blue one. “Y-you are?”

“Of course! The audition—I mean the process in itself—was the most fun I’ve had in years. Years and years and years.” He laughed, reminding Apple Bloom of his missing teeth. “And that’s the memory of Canterlot I’ll hold on to, wherever my life goes from here. I’ll remember that I was treated like an incredible musician, like somepony with the potential to be one of the greatest in Equestria.”

I’m somepony’s Rainbow Dash,” Scootaloo said in Apple Bloom’s memory.

“And, if you ask me, that’s worth a good beating any day of the week.”

Sweetie was practically bawling. A single tear of her own slid down Apple Bloom’s cheek. She didn’t want to agree with Harper’s ever-happy attitude. She wanted repercussion, retribution, justice! But the optimistic ring in her friend’s abhorrent voice kept her from making any such vengeful plans.

Out loud.

(/\/\)

“But they practically killed him, Dr. Cossitee!” Apple Bloom said for the fifth time. “How can you suggest we leave it alone?”

The click of the professor’s briefcase locks echoed through the empty auditorium as he sighed.

“You don’t understand the way things work around here, Apple Bloom,” her teacher counseled. “You were privileged to grow up without the scourges that plague this city, but you are an adult now, in the real world, and you must try to understand that life is not always fair.”

“Don’t give me that,” Apple Bloom snapped, surprising the older stallion. “You remember better’n me what Canterlot used to be like. Life was fair, not six years ago. The Princesses ruled in perfect Harmony.”

“The Princesses,” Dr. Cossitee whispered with a grim squint, “are gone, Apple Bloom. Harmony cannot exist forever. Entropy dissolves all. Discord always wins.”

Apple Bloom’s heart skipped. “D’ya mean… Discord the Draconequus, er…”

Dr. Cossitee smiled. “No, Apple Bloom. I meant it only as a word, not a name. Disharmony, entropy, chaos… things fall apart, child, and you’d be wise to learn that now.”

Unaffected, Apple Bloom slammed her hoof against the ground. “That ain’t how I was raised. I was taught by the Elements o’ Harmony themselves that any problem can be fixed through the Magic o’ Friendship.”

The professor’s smile did not falter, though his eyes became misty. “How I wish that were true,” he muttered, more to himself than to his student.

“It is true,” Apple Bloom testified. “I’ve seen it time and time again, and I’d like to see it here and now!” Her features softened to those of a pleading filly. “So please, Doctor Cossitee, cain’t ya tell somepony what happened? Cain’t we get that brown stallion arrested at least?”

For the first time in ten minutes, Cossitee did not shake his head at the question. He looked Apple Bloom down the length of his muzzle with a hint of admiration in his multi-colored eyes.

“Are you absolutely sure?” he asked in a deep, chilling tone.

Apple Bloom swallowed. “O’ what?”

“Are you absolutely sure that you wish to take the appropriate measures to bring justice to these abusive stallions?”

“Yes! Yes, I am abso-tively sure, sir!”

Dr. Cossitee was quiet and still for a long time, shifting his pink and blue eyes between Apple Bloom’s determined set.

“Very well, then,” he finally said. “I will direct the proper authorities to the stallion you’ve identified. I’m confident that, between your friend Harper’s testimony and any evidence in the alleyway, they will arrest him for his violent crimes.”

Apple Bloom’s mouth exploded into a grateful grin. “Oh, thank you, Doctor Cossitee!” she exclaimed, moving forward to hug him.

He held out a preventive hoof and solemnly narrowed his eyes. “I will make sure of it, as long as you remember that this was your decision, Miss Bloom. You sought for his arrest. You are responsible. Is that clear?”

Confused, Apple Bloom could only nod. Without another word, the teacher whipped around, sending his grey-blonde mane aflutter for a moment. He snatched up his briefcase in a purplish aura of magic and hurried out of the room, leaving the yellow mare to wonder if she had made the right choice.

(/\/\)

LOCAL GANG MEMBER CONVICTED FOR TERRORIZING STUDENT OF ARTS

Harper Heartstrings snorted through his crooked nose. Terrorizing? That’s a nice way to put it.

He scanned over the rest of the article, scooping another spoonful of macaroni into his mouth. His jaw was still sore and heavily bruised, but a full week of healing left him well enough to chew soft foods. He was grateful for anything thicker than mashed potatoes and milkshakes, and his plate of squishy macaroni really hit the spot.

With a frustrated grunt, Harper cut his telekinesis and let the newspaper drop next to his meal. His left eye was almost entirely healed, though its surrounding fur’s coloration was significantly darker than the rest of his coat. It fit in with all the other fading bruises spotting his body. If he were younger, Harper might have imagined the marks were natural, like he was some kind of emerald leopard.

Grrr,” he growled half-heartedly, eyeing the picture of his own battered body on the open page of the Canterlot Sun with malcontent. As if missing a week of classes wasn’t enough, the news of his abuse was sure to make his eventual return to the School a miserable one.

Two capitalized words, repeated several times, stuck out from the columns surrounding his picture more than any others: Apple Bloom, Apple Bloom, Apple Bloom. It seemed like half the article was comprised of her quotes. He had a few in there, too, from his interviews with the investigator and nosey journalist Apple Bloom had brought to his apartment on Monday. Three days later, his words were read by thousands in the most circulated newspaper in Equestria.

Oh, Apple Bloom: making his life ridiculously difficult, one leap and bound at a time. Sometimes he wondered why he loved her so much.

Because she’s beautiful and brilliant and sweeter than her acres’ apples. But none of that matters anymore because she hates you.

No, she doesn’t, a more positive part of himself retorted, tapping a hoof against the newspaper. She obviously cares about you. Otherwise she wouldn’t have gone through all the trouble of getting this guy arrested. All this crazy publicity? This is her way of showing you she cares.

Well, it’s a pretty crumby way, if you ask me. I wish she would have just left it alone. Now I’m going to have to live with being the pathetic, pummeled pony who couldn’t stand up for himself against a bunch of fellow band nerds.

They weren’t band nerds, constructive-Harper reminded. They were vicious gang members who happened to want a spot in the Drum Line. See?

He started to read the article again. Upon investigation by the Royal Police, the leaf-Marked brown stallion who led the attack was found to be associated with one of Canterlot’s most dangerous underground organizations. For his numerous illegal activities, of which Harper’s beating was a part, he was placed in prison.

The article barely mentioned all that, squeezing it into a single, tiny paragraph at the beginning. The rest of it focused on Apple Bloom and her motives behind avenging Harper.

“‘We’ve been close friends since my cute-ceñera,’ says Bloom,” he read aloud, enjoying the return of his own tenor voice. “‘Harper is the most tender, talented, tireless stallion I know. He’s never spoken a bad word about anypony, and he’s always trying to make your day. Most of the time he does.’ Most of the time?” he commentated mid-quote. “Gee, thanks, Bloom. ‘He’s kind and honest and loyal, generous and funny and friendly; everything a good friend should be.’ It doesn’t take a Royal Investigator to see the love in this mare’s eyes.”

The reporter’s written observation startled Harper as he read it. Apple Bloom… loved him? Of course it wasn’t the same kind of love he held for her, but still: somepony totally out of their loop had described Apple Bloom’s feelings for Harper as love.

He smiled sadly, pushing the newspaper away with his left hoof while he finished his macaroni with his right. What was he thinking, confessing his feelings to Apple Bloom? Sure, he was caught up in the heat of the moment, spurred on by the mare’s own encouraging shouts, but that was no excuse to go spilling a secret he’d kept for more than ten years. Their relationship had been perfect. Stalled, perhaps—torturous, at times—but somehow perfect nonetheless. They spent time together, they could talk about anything, they hugged and laughed and nuzzled… now he was wilting away in bandages, and she was his distant avenger.

He used to think she’d fall in love with him, too. He used to think that if they only spent enough quality time together, she would realize how perfect they were for each other: two village-born artists with bittersweet family backgrounds, struggling to make a difference in the world. He used to think they’d get married and have adorable little foals with accents like their mother and rhythm like their father.

“That’ll be the day,” he muttered to himself, levitating his messy plate to the pile of dishes building in the kitchen sink. He stared at the precarious tower for a moment, contemplating whether or not to clean them himself. There were still several hours until any of his roommates came home from their classes, and he really had nothing else to do. Somewhat reluctantly, he directed the nimble magic of his horn over the faucet; it began to fill the empty half of the deep metal basin with scalding water while he rummaged through the kitchen cabinets searching for dish soap.

Two minutes later he had halved the mounting pile and a stack of shiny dishes was building to his right. Both of his forehooves were at work beneath the water, scrubbing hardened residue off the oldest dishes while his magic rinsed and dried the items just above its surface. He hummed quietly to himself as he washed, sometimes letting lyrics form between his buzzing lips.

“…cheer – up – Charlie Horse, don’t let your face stay twist’nnn…”

Behind Harper, the silhouette of a very tall, sickly thin stallion appeared in the kitchen doorway.

“…for something good, you’ll find what yer hmmm hmmm-nn…”

The shade stepped into the room without a noise. Had Harper seen it, he would have wondered how it was possible for a pony of that size to tread so lightly.

“…Pinkie, you gotta stand up tall, learn to face your fears…”

The figure was directly behind him now. It held a practiced breath, hovering a jet-black hoof above the trail of Harper’s scabby mane.

“…I’m gonna make you smiiiile and I will brighten up your day…”

With one swift kick, the assassin silenced Harper’s humming. The dazed pony’s head dropped into the soapy water. Before he could lift himself, two sharp, pitiless hooves pressed down behind his ears.

Harper began to panic, struggling with all his might against the assassin’s hold. He kicked and bucked and squirmed for nearly thirty seconds, but his efforts were fruitless. The stranger was deceptively strong, although Harper never got the chance to make that observation. His lake-blue eyes never saw the noiseless pegasus who killed him.

When Harper was a colt, before he met Apple Bloom, he used to dream of swimming in cookie dough. It was a bizarre sensation, one that only a very young imagination can create with enough accuracy to be appealing.

His last thoughts were not of Ponyville, or of his mother, or of his family’s harp, or even of Apple Bloom. The final coherent thought behind his wild, stinging eyes was the strangely serene image of wading through a pool of cookie dough with Pinkie Pie, singing a duet with her.

It’s true, some days are dark and lonely…” they sang together, “and maybe you feel sad, but Pinkie will be there to show you that it isn’t that bad!

But Pinkie wasn’t there when Harper Heartstrings passed away.